Kurz Cares About The Card

Too few immigrants are allowed to work and State Secretary for Integration Sebastian Kurz fears brain drain

Top Stories | Margaret Childs | April 2013

Sebastian Kurz wants to hold on to skilled foreigners educated in Austria (Photo: Herbert Pfarrhofer/APA)

Say you’re from a non-EU country – America, say, or Singapore, or South Africa – and decide to study in Austria. Maybe you arrived here with your parents as a child, or you fell in love with an Austrian, or simply decided to study here because it was cheap. Whatever the reason, you’re here now, want to stay, and are looking for a job.

The faint-hearts can forget it. The cards, more specifically the Red-White-Red Cards (Rot-Weiss-Rot Karten), are stacked against you. They were introduced in July 2011, theoretically to simplify things for well-qualified foreigners who wanted to work in Austria. In practice they have become a bureaucratic nightmare.

A long-overdue public debate was triggered by the case of Natalia Zambrano, a 29-year-old Colombian who had been living here for 11 years, gained two degrees thanks to Austrian government scholarships – hardly a negligible investment – and a Masters in political science. But her student visa was due to expire on 6 March, requiring her to leave the country, even though she had several job offers. The problem was the infamous Card.

Needed: a fat starting salary

Graduates who have found a job, have a Masters from an Austrian university, from a vocational college (Fachhochschule), or an accredited private university, can all apply. That is the easy part. After that, the hurdles verge on the Kafkaesque.

Applicants must apply within six months of graduation, and before their existing residency permit expires, or else apply from outside Austria. Then they have to pass a crucial stumbling block: the job must "correspond to their education", and pay a gross monthly salary of at least €1,998 – a fat salary these days, especially for a first job.

Those eligible must be "very highly-qualified workers", "skilled workers in shortage occupations", "other key workers", or "self-employed key workers".

Partly as a result of a public outcry over the Zambrano case, the Red-White-Red requirements were discussed by a high-level Social Committee on 14 March. It made some sensible amendments, but two conditions for university graduates became the subject of infighting between the government coalition partners, the Social Democratic (SPÖ) and the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The divisions are predictable.

Austria being short-changed

State Secretary for Integration Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) has been pressing for what he says are common-sense reforms for the last six months. But the issue is subject to a divided, or rather overlapping, jurisdiction. The SPÖ is responsible for work permits while the ÖVP oversees immigration and residency permits.

The key point is "the interests of those effected", Kurz told The Vienna Review. Bureaucratic hurdles had to be overcome so that "young people graduating in Austria find a job for which they have been trained and want to pay taxes, and aren’t sent away."

He argues that the card should also be open to Bachelor’s degree graduates. "We have a shortage of skilled workers in so-called technical professions," he says. "At the same time we have Bachelor graduates with technical training. What sensible explanation is there for not allowing them to work here?"

The SPÖ’s Social and Consumer Affairs Minister Rudolf Hundsdorfer says he is worried about what the unions term "wage-dumping", arguing that the priority is to secure Austrian jobs for Austrians. And while the ÖVP and the Employer’s Association support loosening the rules to allow those with Bachelor’s degrees to work, Bernhard Achitz of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) is sceptical. Foreigners often work for less than their qualifications merit, he says.

Hundsdorfer conceded prior to the Commission meeting in March that although the unemployment rate for graduates with Bachelor’s degrees was rising, absolute numbers were "not dire". But even those graduating from business-oriented programmes at Fachhochschulen were not finding things easy, said the veteran trade unionist: the labour market was not short of graduates at that level.

Which graduates to choose

Kurz’s view is that graduates "have completed a degree in Austria with our taxpayers’ money and it’s in order that when they graduate they give something back by working here and paying taxes." Such graduates were vital in some industries, he said: "It would be irresponsible to send such trained professionals away. And besides we’re only talking about a few hundred young people."

The EU says Austria has created an "unfriendly climate" for immigrants. Kurz’s solution is in part to reduce salary requirements to between €1,600 and €1,900 gross, figures based on a recent study by the Austrian Integrationsfond. This found – unsurprisingly – that a €1,998 minimum often made it all but impossible to employ foreign graduates.

Hundsdorfer countered during a parliamentary debate that lowering the barrier to what would be a net salary of some €1,200 would encourage a flood of low-income academics into the domestic job market. The unions, along with the Austrian Chamber of Labour, do not apparently share this worry, according to the Austrian daily Die Presse.

What is beyond question is that instead of the expected 8,000 Red-White-Red cards authorised by the government for 2012, only some 1,200 were issued.

Foreign artists

The April amendments mean that in future not just job applicants but prospective employers of those categorised as "skilled" and "key workers" can apply for cards. Those holding permanent residency are entitled to a Rot-Weiss-Rot plus Karte, which provides for unlimited access to the labour market.

This will also apply to well-integrated foreigners and those coming to Austria via the "family reunification" (Familienzusammenführung) programme. And in future, foreign artists will only need a residency permit (Aufenthaltstitel) to work here.

While her case was not as straight-forward as it has been portrayed, it took Zambrano a Facebook page and lots of press coverage to get a job giving her access to the labour market. If Kurz gets his way, things may be a bit less cumbersome for other foreign graduates who don’t have the right passports and want to start a career in Austria.

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